There he is again. Sitting opposite, eyes blazing, arms folded, while his girlfriend looks out of the window and pretends she can’t feel the anger that surrounds him.
Now he’s glaring at me. He usually does. I can feel his gaze through the cover of my book. Something about reading seems to upset him. I noticed that when I first starting getting this bus. He gives the evil eye to anyone with a book. The first time I saw him and his girlfriend, he turned some lad with a Harry Potter into a quivering wreck. I wonder if she reads. She probably daren’t.
I risk a glance up.
‘Yeah, you! Arsewipe!’
Thought so. He’s talking to me. I’m the arsewipe.
‘You think that makes you clever?’
I shake my head.
‘Oh, Darren, leave him alone,’ says the girl.
‘I see you every day,’ he snarls, ignoring her. ‘Face stuck in a book. What is it today?’
I show him the cover.
‘Anna Kar… Karr… Karenina,’ he says. ‘Always with the poncey clever-clever books with you, isn’t it?’
I say nothing.
‘What was it the other day…? That one about girl dwarves… Little Women!’
‘Hey, there’s Cassie! Hi Cass,’ shouts the girl at a passer-by. She taps at the window. Darren still ignores her.
‘And there’s all the others. I’ve seen you. Animal Farm. Bleak House. War and Peas. Stuff by fucking Shakespeare. Didn’t you have enough of Shakespeare at school, mate?’
I shake my head again. This seems to annoy him. He shrugs his bulk up from his seat and strides towards me.
‘Sit down, mate, or I’ll have to throw you off the bus!’ calls the driver. Darren ignores him too. He seems to have some problem paying attention to others. I’d point this out to him, but he probably wouldn’t notice. The other passengers look on with interest.
‘I can’t stand people like you,’ he sneers, pushing my book towards my lap. ‘Thinking you’re cleverer than people like me. Thinking you’re smarter than me just because you read books with poncey titles and big words. Think you’re better than me, do you?’
I shake my head again. ‘No,’ I venture.
‘Yeah, you do. Yeah, you do. Always in the library you, I bet.’
‘No,’ I say again. ‘My uncle teaches at the university. He gives me books.’
‘Oh, your uncle’s a teacher! At the university! Aren’t your family just the fucking best?’
‘Darren, please just leave him alone!’ begs the girl.
‘Shut it, Jen! I’ve had it! Him and his reading. But I know your game, mate.’
I look confused.
‘I’ve seen you staring at Jen over the top of your books when you think I’m not looking.’
I shake my head again.
‘For God’s sake, Darren!’ shouts Jen.
‘I’m going to teach you a bloody lesson, you perv!’ says Darren.
‘I’m warning you!’ shouts the driver.
I start to sweat. My glasses slip down my nose. I push them back up.
‘I…’ I begin.
His fist thunders into my jaw. I sprawl across the seat, ears clanging, feeling like I’ve been hit by a train. ‘Darren!’ hollers Jen.
The bus screeches to a halt.
‘That’s it! Off!’ shouts the driver, marching over. He’s a big chap. Darren’s not exactly small, but the driver manhandles him like he was a naughty five-year-old and informs Darren in no uncertain terms that he’s barred from the bus for the foreseeable future. My fellow passengers applaud him.
‘I’ve had it with you! We’re finished, Darren!’ shouts Jen as the door slams in his face.
Darren mouths obscenities through the window.
‘Are you okay… sorry, what’s your name?’ says Jen as the bus starts up again. Darren shrinks out of view as we move down the street.
‘Are you okay, Mark?’
I touch my jaw, readjust my glasses and dust myself down. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I say.
‘I’m sorry about him,’ she says. ‘He’s such a twat.’
‘If there’s anything I can do…?’
‘I’m afraid Darren was partly right. I did used to look at you, just sometimes.’
‘I mean, you’re very pretty.’
‘Would you…’ I say. ‘No, never mind.’
‘No, go on.’
‘Would you like to go for a drink with me one night this week?’
‘Oh,’ she says again. ‘Well…’
‘No, it’s okay. Forget it.’
‘No, no,’ she says. ‘That would be nice, actually. Okay then.’
We swap numbers and Jen gets off the bus. A sympathy date, I know, but I’ll take it as a starting point.
I sit back in my seat and push the book to one side. I think about Darren. I touch my jaw gingerly, and wince. It was worth it, though.
And at least I can stop carrying all these bloody books around now. I can’t stand reading. Me and Darren have that in common at least. Well, that and we both fancy the same girl. Poor, stupid Darren.